Baudelaire and the Ugliness of Beauty – An Addendum: Auden on Poetry

Earlier, I wrote about how, in the best of Baudelaire’s poems, he brings out with unrestrained clarity and starkness, through striking and brutal images, the repulsive – yet alluring – aspect of beauty and love. Today, I came across this passage by Auden:

We want a poem to be beautiful, that is to say, a verbal earthly paradise, a timeless world of pure play, which gives us delight precisely because of its contrast to our historical existence with all its insoluble problems and inescapable suffering; at the same time we want a poem to be true, that is to say, to provide us with some kind of revelation about our life which will show us what life is really like and free us from self-enchantment and deception, and a poet cannot bring us any truth without introducing into his poetry the problematic, the painful, the disorderly, the ugly.” – “Robert Frost”, from The Dyer’s Hand and Other Essays. (Emphasis Supplied)

The first half of that passage would, I suppose, be the philosophy of a Keats writing La Belle Dame Sans Merci, or a Tennyson writing The Lady of Shalott, or a Walter de La Mere writing A Song of Enchantment – romanticism, essentially. The second half seems to resemble the approach of the Movement, perhaps D.J. Enwright’s Saying No, or Larkin’s Deceptions. And as I think about Auden’s passage, it seems to me that these two approaches have often been in tension, evolving as a response, and in opposition to, each other. The 19th century Romantics were reacting to the Enlightenment, to mechanisation, to industrialisation, and so they were consciously trying to create, in the words of the critic F.R. Leavis, “a dream world“; and it was against this dream world that first, the Modernists, and then the Movement, in turn, reacted (think of Ezra Pound’s A Few Don’ts by an Imagiste and Kingsley Amis’ Lovely, to take just two examples). 

And as I continued to muse over the passage, it occurred to me that perhaps one of the major reasons why Baudelaire’s poetry is so striking and impactful, and why it lingers so long in the memory, is that he does succeed in carrying out the Auden edict, to a great degree. I’ve underlined a few of the words in that passage, because I think they are most accurate. La Mort des Amants (The Death of Lovers) and La Chevelure (Of Her Hair) are two brilliant examples of how Baudelaire can build a “verbal earthly paradise“, that timeless world of pure play that contrasts with “actual historical existence… of inescapable suffering“. And for ugliness at its starkest, we of course need look no further than Une Charogne (The Carcass), and so many more.  The presence of these two types of poems in the same volume already hints at the point that Auden is making, but what is more, Baudelaire repeatedly succeeds in marrying them within the same poem. A few poems that I discussed earlier: Le Cygne (The Swan), where Baudelaire appropriates the classically romantic image of the swan to illustrate the desperate situation of the victims of colonialism (discussed here), and his series of poems on love and the ideal, in which allure and repulsion, attraction and disgust, beauty and ugliness – are all held together, mutually reinforcing each other, integral parts of both the poem and the experience (discussed here).

It is part of the point that, I think, Walter Benjamin makes in the very title of his book – “Charles Baudelaire: A Lyric Poet in the Era of High Capitalism“, and in the book itself, when he calls Baudelaire the last of the lyric poets, and explains how he used the lyric form, and lyric motifs, in writing about the effects of the rise of the cities as part of the rise of 19th century industrial capitalism. This perhaps explains it – Baudelaire remoulded the language, imagery and vocabulary of romanticism – without depriving it of its essence – in a way that it becameincredibly – the language of the city, of everyday life, of what Auden calls “the truth“. Lyricism, but with no dream words, and “free from self-enchantment and deception” (remember, for a moment, how obsessed Larkin was with the word “deception”, and of freeing poetry from it – see this poem, called Deceptions. Larkin’s solution was a different language altogether, while Baudelaire kept the language, because he saw himself as a lyric poet).

Le Soleil (The Sun) is, I think, one of Baudelaire’s most beautiful poems, and it illustrates the point perfectly (Aggeler translation):

The Sun

Along the old street on whose cottages are hung 
The slatted shutters which hide secret lecheries, 
When the cruel sun strikes with increased blows 
The city, the country, the roofs, and the wheat fields, 
I go alone to try my fanciful fencing, 
Scenting in every corner the chance of a rhyme, 
Stumbling over words as over paving stones, 
Colliding at times with lines dreamed of long ago.

This foster-father, enemy of chlorosis,
Makes verses bloom in the fields like roses;
He makes cares evaporate toward heaven,
And fills with honey hives and brains alike.
He rejuvenates those who go on crutches
And gives them the sweetness and gaiety of girls,
And commands crops to flourish and ripen
In those immortal hearts which ever wish to bloom!

When, like a poet, he goes down into cities, 
He ennobles the fate of the lowliest things 
And enters like a king, without servants or noise, 
All the hospitals and all the castles.

I think the great thing about this poem is how the two sets of images – and words – are intertwined so closely, so subtly, even, that it’s impossible to keep them apart in your head. “Secret lecheries” and “verses blooming in the fields like roses“; the “cruel” sun that “strikes with increased blows” – and yet “rejuvenates” those on crutches, filling them with the “sweetness and gaiety of girls” – and at the end, in the last line, “hospitals” and “castles” as the two places into which the sun goes. Baudelaire uses classic romantic vocabulary, referring to “immortal hearts” and “dreams“, and at the same time, destabilises it by also using “chlorosis” and “slated shutters“.  At the end of reading this poem, my mind, at least, was filled with a clutch of contradictory and confusing images, sensations, thoughts and ideas. The verbal earthly paradise, in the process of construction, had been subverted by the intrusion of the problematic, the painful, the disorderly and the ugly. And the key point, I think, the point that Auden does not make in the passage, but one that appears repeatedly in his own poetry – is the essentiality of not taking sides, of not driving the poem to a resolution where either one view prevails over another, or both are reconciled. This absence of reconciliation is, I feel, a key feature of Baudelaire’s poetry, something that distinguishes his treatment of contradictions from the romantics’ “sublimation of sorrow” that I discussed here. The contradictions remain unresolved, remain in tension, and yet remain integral and indispensable parts of the entire experience. And at the end of the day, we get a sense, from Baudelaire, that dissonance, disharmony, disarray… even these things can be beautiful.

This is perhaps what Auden’s vision of poetry – as it comes out through that passage – was, and perhaps what Baudelaire accomplished brilliantly.

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4 Comments

Filed under Charles Baudelaire, French poetry, Literary Studies/Criticism/Theory, W.H. Auden

4 responses to “Baudelaire and the Ugliness of Beauty – An Addendum: Auden on Poetry

  1. Taking this discussion to an almost impossibly lowbrow level, the contradictions, the mix of beauty and evil, are what fascinate me in the TV series Supernatural.

  2. Brian Joseph

    I am thinking of your point about Baudelaire not taking sides. I have an intuition that I might conclude that at least a few poets as well as prose writers exhibit this tendency. Walt Whitman comes to mind. I think that Shakespeare, at least at times, went in this direction.

    I had never read The Sun before. It is a great poem.

    • Walter Benjamin has a brilliant analysis of The Sun, albeit from a different angle. If you like Baudelaire’s poetry, you simply must read Benjamin’s book – it’s an incredible read.

      I think the greatest writers all reject resolutions – it was, indeed, a characteristic feature of Auden’s poetry. Shakespeare is an interesting case – some of his neo-Platonist sonnets, as I think I mentioned to you before, seem to be quite… affirmationist in theme and spirit.

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